Standardize Testings Poor Assessment Of Educational Quality Singapore Education Essay


The West once viewed improved access to high quality education as the golden answer to development problems. However, while improvements in education have occurred throughout the developing world, many of the nations that were characterized as "developing nations" 50 years ago remain so today. Although there are many possible reasons for this delay in development, one cause is standardize testing's misleading assessment of the factors that constitute a quality education and the policy decisions that follow such assessments.

How does one assess the quality of a nation's education system? Not surprisingly, education experts from around the world are not clear on the answer to this question. Should such assessments be based on student results on performance on literacy and mathematics examinations? Or should they be based on the dollar value and percent of GDP that is devoted to education? Maybe the number and percent of students who start and graduate from secondary school and attend a post-secondary institution? Perhaps the ultimate measure is the number of Nobel Prizes in a relevant field of study?

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It is actually very difficult (and probably not possible) to develop a single measure that can be used to measure something as complex and amorphous as "quality education". Even more challenging is the task of developing a measure that can be used in a global context to help guide developing nations.

One could argue that a highly functioning system of education is both the result of a highly functioning economy and is also a necessary precondition to the creation of one. In this paper, I review the relationship between education and economic development, using Singapore, the country I grew up in, as a case study, analyze the methods commonly used to evaluate educational quality in developing nations and examine why those methods may lead to inaccurate or incomplete conclusions about what constitutes a high quality education.

Following the widespread destruction of World War II, the World Bank, the United Nations and similar multilateral organizations were established to assist with the rebuilding of Europe. Over time, their respective mandates were expanded, or interpreted more broadly, to provide funds and technical assistance for infrastructure and other projects in the developing world. Later still, the World Trade Organization, and, moving into the modern era, hundreds of NGOs, were formed and now constitute what is known as "civil society" involved with development. Most of these entities have similar objectives - seeking out the most efficient, effective and economical way to lift nations out of poverty, or to improve the lives of the populations in such nations.

While the problems of Third World countries are not uniform and vary greatly according to region, a common thread throughout the developing world is the need for improved economic activity and economic growth. There are many theories and strategies regarding the best way to stimulate the economies of the developing world. One method that has historically received a great deal of attention is based on the concept of improving access to high quality education. For decades it has been widely perceived that many of the problems facing developing countries were the direct result of a poorly educated population. Therefore, it was postulated, if people were better educated, they would make more informed, and, overall better, decisions. Thus, many problems in the developing world could be prevented. Education became the "one size fits all" solution to all development related problems. If there were high AIDS rates in a particular country or region, the solution was sexual health education (Fineburg, 1988). If farms were using counter-productive seeding methods, the answer was educational agricultural workshops (Heijnen, 1968). If infant mortality rates were high, then educating new mothers was the key (Cleland and van Ginneken, 1988). While education certainly plays an important role in addressing such problems, it is impossible to ignore the impact that cultural factors, incompetent and corrupt governments, gender discrimination and religious differences have on the ability of education to solve all development problems. Quality education is now viewed as but one of a series of components that must be in place for effective development to occur.

As noted above, once the analysis moves past the superficial level, the challenges of determining what constitutes a quality system of education, how to measure if one exists, and what to focus on in a given country to develop one, become apparent. An interesting case study in evaluating education as the driver of economic development is the nation state of Singapore.

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During the 1990's several previously developing nations in East Asia experienced an incredible economic transformation. These countries became known as the "Asian Tigers" as the ferocity of their economic expansion surprised most Western economists. The small island nation of Singapore is perhaps the shiniest star amongst all Asian Tigers. From 1966 to 1990, the Singaporean economy grew at an annual rate of 8.5%, an amazing figure that was three times that of the US economy (Krugman, 1994). Per capita income grew at an annual rate of 6.6%, practically doubling every decade (ibid, 1994). Government attention on the entire system of education went through a transformation. In 1966 over half of the Singaporean workforce had no formal education, but by 1990 two thirds had completed secondary education (ibid, 1994). In 1994 Paul Krugman wrote a controversial critique of the East Asian economic model. He hypothesized that East Asian economies were too input-driven and therefore were at risk for an economic slowdown similar to the one experienced by Japan in 1989 (ibid, 1994). Many Western economists derided his views at the time. Krugman believed that the majority of the improvements made by Singapore could be explained by increases in inputs (ibid, 1994). In short, there was no increase in "real" efficiency per se. Instead, Krugman postulated, the Singaporean economy had always been efficient but had previously been starved of capital and educated workers due to policy choices (ibid, 1994). Therefore, it had not performed at its full potential. Once sufficient capital and labor were available, economic expansion occurred - there was no secret to "Singapore efficiency" that explained the nations' economic growth (ibid, 1994). Another unpalatable part of Krugman's theory (to Singapore's Prime Minister and to the leaders of other countries in the region) was that once the inputs reached maxim capacity, the productivity of the Asian Tigers would decrease (ibid, 1994). Krugman's prediction was realized during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990's when many countries in the region faced rapid currency devaluation, negative economic growth and imminent sovereign default. Singapore, like all other nations in the regions, faced a severe economic shock, but withstood the crisis better than the other Asian Tigers.

One could reasonably argue that Singapore's resilience to the economic crash was linked to its prudent government policies, which in turn was linked to the quality of its ministers and civil service, which in turn was linked to its excellent system of education. For many years, Singapore students have achieved among the world's highest standardized test scores in math and science. Every four years the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), an organization based out of Boston, Massachusetts, conducts the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Since 1995, Singapore has been ranked in one of the top three spots in all four categories that TIMSS evaluates, with the exception of grade four science in 1995 (ranked 7th) (Press, 2008). According to the 2003 results, Singapore scored first in all categories, which consist of fourth grade math and science and eighth grade math and science (Trends, 2011). In the 2007 TIMSS report, Singapore scored second and third in fourth and eighth grade math and first in both fourth and eighth grade science (Trends, 2011).

While such noteworthy accomplishments could be viewed as a positive appraisal of Singapore's system of education, it is important to note that high scores on standardized tests are often the result of rote memorization, as opposed to critical thinking, and do not measure creative intellectual capability (Somerset, 2011). As a result, even though Singaporean children perform well, often the best in the world, on standardized tests, interestingly, they do not continue on to achieve "world beating" accomplishments. Singapore has very few world-renowned scientists, entrepreneurs, investors or academics. Many of the elite cadre of government ministers who create government policies and the upper echelon of businessmen and women who effectively implement such policies in the commercial world, have received some of their graduate degrees at Western institutions of higher learning. For example, Lee Kwan Yew, the "father" of the country is himself a Cambridge graduate (Cambridge). George Yong-Boon Yeo, Minister for Foreign Affairs is an alumni of both Cambridge and Harvard and Raymond Lim, Minister for Transport and the Second Minister for Foreign Affairs, also attended Cambridge, as well as Oxford (About). If the country's system of education, as measured by the high standardized test scores of its students, really was the best model in the world to follow, then why have so many top-level Singaporeans sought post-graduate degrees outside the country? Singapore's own minister of education from 2003 to 2008, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, admitted that succeeding on standardized math and science tests was reflective of an exam-based meritocracy rather than a talent meritocracy (Zakaria, 2006). Standardized tests are not an accurate measure of the quality of education since they cannot evaluate creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure or ambition - characteristics necessary for both a well-rounded education and success in the business world (Somerset, 2011).

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Unfortunately, the effectiveness of an education system is often measured by the results of its students on standardized tests. These tests collect both input and output indicators, which are then summarized into aggregate numbers to assess educational quality (Somerset, 2011). However, changes in these indicators by themselves cannot provide a thorough and effective evaluation of the quality of a system of education in a country. Instead, they perpetuate the cycle of disregarding the importance of education quality and often result in a focus on "teaching to the test" (ibid, 2011).

Every year UNESCO publishes the Global Monitoring Report (GMR), a guide that helps education professionals inform, influence and assess the progress made toward achieving UNESCO's goal of education for all. The examination of education released in the Global Monitoring Report is regarded as the premier analysis of systems of education around the world (Somerset, 2011). The GMR compares and contrasts test results in a variety of categories. However, whether these scores are a valid surrogate for educational quality is not questioned or addressed (ibid, 2011). Besides quality, the key dimensions of education can be quantitatively measured fairly and accurately (ibid, 2011). Although reliable data on gross and net enrolment rates can measure participation in schooling, these types of statistics cannot be used to evaluate the quality of the education that is being provided.

As noted previously, the concept of measuring "quality" in education is itself problematic. One approach that is frequently implemented is using input measures as indicators (Somerset, 2011). These include the dollar value and percent of GDP spent per student, the number and percent of teachers trained in primary education, student-teacher ratios and student-textbook ratios (The World Bank, 2010). However, focusing on the number and value of resource dollars that are spent on education, in a given country, is not an accurate assessment of the quality of an education system (Somerset, 2011). A better approach would be to ask how effectively and efficiently such resources are used in the classroom to enhance both teaching and learning (ibid, 2011). It is relatively easy for NGO's to collect and distribute textbooks and other resources to schools in developing nations (ibid, 2011). The difficulty lies in effectively using such resources. It is not uncommon to find unopened boxes of textbooks in the libraries of schools in developing countries (ibid, 2011). If input measures are looked at in isolation, they are poor indicators of educational quality.

The challenge is the difficultly in developing good indicators of high-quality pedagogy in the Third World. The components that contribute to high-quality pedagogy in the Western World, for example, if implemented without any adaptation in developing countries, could actually be detrimental to the quality of education (Somerset, 2011). For example, a lesson based upon a student-active, guided-discovery approach in a Canadian, American and European school would be both more creative and enjoyable for the student (ibid, 2011). But in the overcrowded and under resourced classroom of developing countries this approach could lead to chaos and confusion (ibid, 2011). Instead, a more traditional approach of meaningful receptive learning, where the teacher is in control, would be much more effective (ibid, 2011).

Due to this complexity, it is understandable that measures of outcomes, rather than inputs, are often relied upon when assessing the level of education quality. There are two main sources of available outcome measures: the international assessment systems, such as Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and national examination systems (Somerset, 2011). Obviously one of the main differences between the two is their geographic scope. Examination systems occur within the boundaries of a single country while assessment systems are international and are used to make comparisons between countries. International assessment systems also tend to focus on a narrow range of curriculum topics, specifically literacy and numeracy, and do not address social sciences or creative art (ibid, 2011). On the other hand, national examination systems, especially on the secondary level, attempt to evaluate a wider range of the curriculum (ibid, 2011).

There are valid reasons, of course, for these differences. One of the key reasons is due to the disparity of curricula between countries. Even in subject areas such as the physical sciences or mathematics, which have an almost universal content, regardless of region or language, there are still significant differences in the curricula that are used in countries around the world (Somerset, 2011). These differences prevent agreement on the necessary specifications required for standardized tests. In the arts and social sciences, the diversity in the curriculum makes forming a consensus regarding a framework for an assessment nearly impossible (ibid, 2011). Although the narrowing down and selection of specific, easy to assess, topics is logical, it results in these areas being more heavily emphasized in class lessons (ibid, 2011). Stressing certain subjects more than others takes away from the ideal of a well-rounded education.

Another difference between international assessments and national examinations is the quality of the test questions. Generally speaking, international assessments have much better written questions than many national examinations (Somerset, 2011). Since international assessments are circulated for several years and are produced by successful NGO's, there is both the time and the resources to write higher quality questions (Somerset, 2011). International assessment questions are written to test higher-order thinking skills, such as concept application (ibid, 2011). In contrast, new national examinations are administered every year and developing countries do not allocate the funds necessary to write high quality questions (ibid, 2011). Most of the national examinations test purely straightforward recall and memorization (ibid, 2011).

The final important difference is the varying level of significance of test results to different interest groups. While the release of the latest results from a new international assessment creates quite a stir among politicians, policy makers and the media, it does not have a large impact on the students and teachers themselves (Somerset, 2011). Politicians, policy makers and the media pay close attention to any changes, whether positive or negative, from the results of the previous international assessment (ibid, 2011). These numbers are practically meaningless in the local perspective. Since the assessment uses light sampling, only a few schools per area are surveyed and participation usually carries no rewards or consequences for students or teachers (ibid, 2011). In comparison, national examinations are very high-stakes events for both teachers and pupils. Examinations are population based so every student, in every applicable grade, in every school takes part (ibid, 2011). The consequences are significant for students, especially those in low-income areas; a couple of points higher or lower can change a child's future (ibid, 2011). A few marks higher can open up opportunities in continuing education and better employment while a few marks lower can restrict a student's choices to a less-valued opportunity or perhaps no opportunity at all (ibid, 2011). For teachers, how their students perform can influence their own career and promotion prospects (ibid, 2011).

For that reason, national examinations often result in a strong backwash effect. Teachers use the examinations as a guide to signal which topics, concepts and skills they should focus on (Somerset, 2011). Teachers, in essence, simply teach to the test. Hence, a circular relationship is formed. Examinations and assessments measure the outcomes of the pedagogical process but are also powerful instigators of them (Somerset, 2011). High-quality examinations promote high-quality pedagogy while low-quality examinations promote low-quality pedagogy.

In conclusion, the current techniques of evaluating the success of an education system are often limited to measuring quality via inputs and outputs from standardized tests. However, this method is inaccurate and outdated and leads to misallocation of resources. Most developing nations that strive for high standardized test scores would be better served by taking the resources currently devoted to preparing for national and international tests and using them instead, to make fundamental changes to the way their education systems are structured. Where possible, an emphasis should be directed to creating an environment where creative, innovative thinking could be nurtured. As Professor Bertil Andersson, formerly Provost of the Nanyang Technological University and trustee of the Nobel Foundation stated powerfully

"I do not believe good scientists can be "developed" and "planned" for. I also do not agree that the best scientists have the best grades in school. The best scientists are those who started with passion and curiosity - asking questions and solving them. Regardless of whether the questions involve a dollar sign. These are the men and women who will change the world" (Wy-cin, 2007).